2019, Theological Reflection

Behold! The Blessed Promise of Unity

By M. Kathryn Armistead, Tennessee Annual Conference

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity” (Ps 133:1). While this is the NIV translation of the psalm, the Hebrew is more vivid. In Hebrew the verse begins with “Behold” — hin-nêh. Hinneh is also used in “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” (Isa 7:14), and “And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you” (Gen 9:9). My professor, Gerry Janzen, explained it this way. When the Bible uses the word hinneh, it is like someone grabbing you by your collar, looking you eyeball to eyeball, and shouting in your face: “Pay attention. I’m only going to say this once. Wake up and don’t ever forget.” The word conveys a sense of urgency, immediacy; it is as if time stops, and we are suspended in the Now.

When the biblical text says, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (KJV), the psalmist is not making a reference to the future or invoking some vague principle about living together, the writer is calling upon the people of God to be in the here and now with God. If anything, the writer proclaims the fact of unity, which is possible only when we align ourselves with God’s purpose and abide in God’s presence. It is a strong statement about faith and God’s steadfast lovingkindness.

The writer is also clear that unity is not instant or magic but must be worked out with people who dwell together. In other words, unity must be tested and embodied in real day-to-day living with people who know one another, a family of faith. And this is where we United Methodists find ourselves. Our unity in mission and witness is being tested. We are not united, and some advocate that we go forward as an “untied” Methodist Church.[1] For years we have let issues related to human sexuality overshadow the missio Dei. And it is a great sin of our time that we have been so engrossed with our own troubles that “we have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will; we have broken your law; we have rebelled against your love; we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.”[2]

How does it look to live together in unity, knowing that we can never fully agree? Can we claim the promise that living in unity is pleasant and good? I believe that the Sermon on the Mount gives guidance, because it is here that Jesus puts forth his ethic of how people live in and into the reign of God; that is, how we align our purpose with God’s and thus live in unity. The beatitudes give us a picture of how Christians should treat others and the actions that should be characteristic of the Church, the Body of believers. The beatitudes can be the standard by which we measure our unity, because they are meant to be not only actions of individuals but also characteristic of the ways we live together. Through the beatitudes, Jesus explains how a united community looks. First, and more obviously, unity in the body is marked by blessedness—or as some translations say, happiness—where we can abide and multiply our witness.

Here is an example of living in unity as God’s people. At a church we once served, one of our youth was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She and her family had been traveling in Korea when she began having extreme headaches. Not knowing what to do, her parents took her to the local hospital emergency room, expecting a prescription. Surprisingly, after an exam, the doctor advised immediate surgery. After many hours, the chief surgeon came out and told her parents that they had gotten most of the tumor. He advised her parents to take her home to die.

The parents were in shock but not in a mood to give up. The logistics of getting their daughter home were a nightmare; when they arrived back in the US, the teen was taken immediately to St. Jude’s hospital, many miles from where the family lived. For months, the church ministered to the family, providing food, gas cards, transportation for the other children, fund raisers, and prayer—a lot of prayer. The physical and emotional toll was great, but there was no turning back. We all shared the load the best we could.

For a time, it looked like the young woman would beat the cancer. But after years of struggle, she died. The funeral was at the church, and hundreds of people showed up—friends, the high school dance team, youth groups from neighboring churches, and countless others. This was not a happy time, but it was a chance to see how many lives she had touched in her brief fifteen years. The faith community, which extended well beyond the local church, struggled to make sense of the tragedy; but it was also a time when the Body of Christ united and fulfilled the promise of unity. The Church practiced grace-filled, steadfast lovingkindness. People acted selflessly and put differences aside. The community of faith held this family up and embodied God’s love the best it knew how. The Body of Christ is at its best when it is united and serves others.

So What?

What difference does it make that the Church is unified? Recently, it was reported that the president of the Philippines said that he would resign if someone could prove to him that God is real. What would make the most effective witness of God’s presence to this powerful leader? My answer is the Body of Christ, a unified Church, acting in one accord with justice, mercy, and love even for those who persecute others.[3]

Church history tells us that in the days of the Early Church, Roman officials could not understand how the Christian community flourished despite government censor and attack.  They thought Christians were crazy; who else would take in orphans, tend the sick, feed outcasts, and put themselves in harm’s way for those who could never repay? It was not just the individual bravery of a few but the corporate witness of the many that turned the tide of history. It is the unified body, the cloud of witnesses acting in one accord that, by God’s grace, wins the day.

Where God Leads, We Must Follow

The United Methodist Church is a movement built for mission, but our path is besieged by fighting and posturing. Even the middle ground is being carved up. With deeper and deeper entrenchment, soon there may be no ground left, and if those of us caught betwixt and between dare stand up, we risk being shot by one or both sides. But still God calls us to be the Body of Christ, a unified force meant to bear witness to God’s light in a dark world.

There is no doubt that there has been patronizing, moralizing, and careless biblical interpretation on all sides of the current debates. Why should this time be any different from other times in our history.[4] Even as “people called Methodist,” we cannot agree on the tenor of scripture, and this makes our other applications of biblical principles suspect. What is more important: God’s holiness or justice? Human love or free will? For United Methodists, these either/or choices are biblically unsound and methodologically indefensible. Let us remember that the Bible is not a weapon; rather the Bible informs, encourages, and witnesses to faith in God. It serves to open us up, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, to God’s “Yes,” God’s new creation. It points to the fact that even choosing to be on God’s “side” of an issue is fraught with difficulty and shot through with human pride.

If not the Bible, can tradition hold us together in all our diversity? Here some say we United Methodists will have a hard time defending against schism, given our history. But divisions reach back to the beginnings of Christianity, which began, as we all know, as a break-away from Judaism. History is not destiny, and neither is biology. As a Church, we accept homosexual persons as members; even the most conservative of us will affirm that God loves all people and will not exclude any believer from God’s kingdom now or in the life to come. We all agree that God’s grace is freely available to all. No, the issue isn’t Church membership; it is ordination and the sacraments.

This suggests two things. First, as a Church, we do not deny persons we identify as sinners (all of us) the sacraments of Communion and baptism. Yet we do deny some people rituals of the church that are not sacraments—ordination and marriage. We, as United Methodists, understand that Communion is sacred. Communion, like baptism is a means of grace, a sacrament. Ordination is not. Neither is marriage.

Second, long ago the Church decided that the efficacy of sacraments does not depend on the character or behavior of the ordained officiant. A controversy, which became known as the Donatist heresy, deeply divided the Church, and the answer helped clarify our understanding of the sacraments. The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away during persecution. By declaring the Donatist refusal as heresy, the church decreed that the person of the priest was irrelevant to God’s presence as orthodoxy. For The United Methodist Church, this suggests that God is still present, regardless of  the biological, psychological, or sociological make-up of clergy or lay leadership. So if God works through us all and offers relationship with all, who are we to cut ourselves off from those with whom God walks and talks?

Whatever our personal feelings, we are people of our time. But we don’t have to settle for being only that. We can be countercultural, which means that we can dare to climb out of our foxholes, a term that evokes a familiar story from World War I. It was Christmas Eve. Germans and Allied forces stared at each other across enemy lines, until a single soul, white flag in hand, bravely crossed no-man’s land. It wasn’t long before soldiers were sharing food, candy, gifts, and cigarettes. They sang “Silent Night” and other hymns. Bloodied ground was now holy ground. As the sun rose, the generals were eager to resume the war, but neither side would shoot. There were no enemies, only friends.

We must all be willing to venture out on holy ground, the ground that lies between us. While we may not agree, we can nevertheless resolve to uphold one another’s faith and witness. Each of us can reach only some people. I may not be able to be an effective witness to those that you can reach. I once had a client who was gay; she was also a Christian. It had been a painful journey for her, and she felt that her straight life was a lie she had lived her entire life. When she “came out,” she decided to go to all the people who were important to her and tell them the truth. She thought, if they really cared for her, they would validate her. The results were mixed, but most welcomed her news, and many of those were her church friends. Her gay friends were amazed. They had been sure that all churchgoers were hypocrites and would reject her outright. When that did not happen, it gave her a chance to talk about her faith to those who were hungry for some good news.

How do we know which way God is leading us? Perhaps Martin Luther might help. Luther said that when you come to a fork in the road and don’t know which way to go, pray and seek wise counsel. Do everything in your power to discern the way forward. And after you’ve done all that, take a bold step in your chosen direction. If it is the right way, rejoice and give God thanks. But if you get down the road and discover, it was the wrong decision, rejoice and know that God will bring about all the good possible, even from your sin. Luther’s advice was, if you don’t know, take a step anyway. Sin boldly, for that is far better than being a lukewarm Christian. Lord, save us from being a lukewarm Church. Perhaps that is the best advice. We cannot know what is ahead, but we must take a step. The world needs Christ and whatever we do, God will use it and work all things for God’s glory. Let’s not be afraid of what decisions our denomination will make. Rather let us link arms in unity and continue to serve and be about our mission.

[1] For a more comprehensive view of United Methodist unity in regard to issues related to human sexuality, see Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness (Nashville: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2017).

[2] “A Service of Word and Table II,” The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 12.

[3] https://nypost.com/2018/06/26/duterte-calls-god-stupid-in-rant-about-adam-and-eve/; accessed July 9, 1018.

[4] Anne Burkholder, “The Clash among Unity, Inclusion, and Covenant: Lessons from History,” in Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness (Nashville: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2017), 85–112.

THEMES

2019 – Unity in the Church

2018 – Claim Who We Are in Christ

2017 – Bodies, Oppression, and Gospel

2016 – Birthing a Worldwide Church

2015 – Clergywomen Lead Vital Congregations

2014 – Empowerment for All

2013 – What Next?

2012 – What Does the Lord Require of Us?

2011 – See, I am Doing a New Thing

2010 – Voicing Truth With Grace

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WellSprings, A Journal of United Methodist Clergywomen, is published by the Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

Editor: HiRho Y. Park

Managing Editor: Barbara A. Dick

Editorial Circle: Patricia Bonilla, Neelley Hicks, Anita Phillips, Jacqui Rose-Tucker, Trudy Hawkins Stringer